Toy Story 4 Video Review ft. Mark Branson Thurston

In honor of Toy Story 4, I wanted to do something special, so I recruited my friend Mark Branson Thurston, a filmmaker and fellow film-lover, to make madeleinelovesmovies.com’s first video review. Mark and I discuss various themes of the film, Woody’s character arc, and whether or not you will cry (I didn’t find it as emotional as the other Toy Story films, but Mark disagreed). I went into Toy Story 4 with low expectations, not believing the movie could live up to the ending of Toy Story 3. What I should have remembered is to never underestimate Pixar. 

Mark Branson Thurston currently resides in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He loves spending time with family and friends, staying connected with the local churches in the Tulsa Area and is working on scripts as well as treatments for the films as we speak. He is the creator of Notebook Chronicles Studio, where he has made four short films along with a multi-part youtube series, and make one-minute movie reviews.

Notebook Chronicles Website

Youtube

Thurston’s personal quote for film-making is: “Films making us think, cry, laugh, or strive are enjoyable. Creating a film that possesses all of those qualities is what makes it stand out from the rest.”

-Madeleine D.

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The 10 Best Things of 2019 (So Far)

Around this time, people start making “best of” lists for the first half of 2019. Unfortunately, I have not seen 10 movies that have come out this year that are worth being on such a list. But if we expand past movies, I do have a few “best of” things I would recommend you check out.

Movies

How to Train Your Dragon 3

The best animated movie of the year so far (until maybe Toy Story 4), this gorgeous and mature final entry into the groundbreaking franchise finds Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) making difficult choices as the leader of his clan and transitioning from a boy to a man. The film is both laugh-out-loud funny and sensitive, truly a treat for all ages.

Everyone Knows

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi specializes in stories where a crisis quickly unravels to reveal long-kept secrets held by the characters, and nothing is solved until the truth is brought into the light. Everybody Knows beautifully executes this framework, telling the story of a woman whose daughter is kidnapped at a wedding, and the entire family becomes suspect. Despite the sensational stakes, the drama is highest in the intense, fiercely personal interactions between characters. Don’t let the subtitles scare you- it’s one of the best dramas of the year.

Music

“Old Town Road” [Remix] by Little Nas X ft. Billie Ray Cyrus

Yeehaw. I can’t wait for the emerging hick-hop genre to bring this divided country together.

Wasteland, Baby! album by Hozier

Hozier, best known for his runaway single “Take Me To Church,” follows up his self-titled debut album five years later with a moody, sometimes sultry, and always tortured reflection about wrestling between his desire for the pleasures of earth and the cautious hope of a spiritual dimension. He goes back and forth on the album between “the world is ending, nothing matters, but I love you so let’s just go with that,” and “things do matter and we have a responsibility to fight for them.” This tug-a-war, no matter how much you may agree or disagree with Hozier at any point in the album, never fails to be interesting and honest. He takes up Mumford and Son’s mantle of obscure and somewhat confusing mixes of biblical and literary references that make me miss Mumford and Sons, but alas, they died in 2013, and Hozier is a suitable heir.

I also had the fortune of seeing Hozier live in concert, and he was just as good there. He’s not a one-hit wonder, but hopefully here to stay. My favorite songs from the album are Dinner and Diatribes, Nina Cried Power, and Sunlight.

Podcasts

Cape Up with Jonathan Capehart, Voices of the Movement

Jonathan Capehart is a journalist and contributor to The Washington Post. A series within the podcast, “Voices of the Movement”, began earlier this year and tells the story of the Civil Rights movement. As of this writing, there are nine episodes, each about 20 to 30 minutes long. Each one focuses on different aspects of the movement, such as women of the movement, children in the movement, how Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “The Letter From Birmingham Jail” was snuck out of jail, and so on. It’s not only well-done but gets below the surface facts and stories you’ve already heard to bring out unsung heroes. Finally, Capehart ties it into today, asking listeners how the strategies used during the Civil Rights era can be applied today in other areas of injustice.

My favorite episodes are Episode 6, “How segregationist George Wallace became a model for racial reconciliation” and Episode 7, “How music propelled the civil rights movement.” You can download it wherever you get your podcasts.

The Anthropocene Reviewed

John Green is best known as the author of The Fault in Our Stars and some other young adult novels, along with running a youtube channel and making educational content with his brother Hank Green. While I don’t love his books, I find him fascinating as a person and like a lot of his other content (thank you Crash Course for helping me in school!) His monthly podcast, The Anthropocene Reviewed, is a fairly straightforward concept, despite the title. In each episode, Green picks two things from the world and reviews them on a five-star scale. The items don’t have any clear correlation. He’s done things from Hawaiian pizza to Super Mario Kart, CNN to Viral Meningitis, and Diet Dr. Pepper to Canadian Geese.

What is not so straightforward is how he presents each topic. Green ties in deeply personal anecdotes from his life, with acute observations and quandaries about what the items in questions mean in relation to their spot in human history and to the current culture. The podcast, like Green himself, can be quite melancholy, but in a way that never ceases to express genuine wonder at the natural- and unnatural- world. If approached right, The Anthropocene Reviewed is not only a peaceful listen, but an exercise in gratefulness. I give it five out of five stars.

I recommend Episode 8, “Whispering and the Weather,” and Episode 10, “Tetris and the Seed Potatoes of Leningrad” (these are both episodes from 2018, which isn’t to say the ones from 2019 are lesser, these are just my favorites.) You can download it wherever you get your podcasts.

Youtube

Can You Judge Art Objectively?” from Just Write

Sage Hyden, a wonderful youtube essayist aimed at media criticism with an emphasis on application for writers, breaks down the theories of criticism by 18th-century thinkers David Hume and Immanuel Kant to argue why conversations about art and all art criticism is subjective, why we shouldn’t be afraid of looking at art through multiple lenses, and why “there are plotholes” is not a reason to give for disliking a movie. As someone who writes reviews, understanding the history of criticism and the role of critics and picking and choosing which schools of thought I subscribe to and how they inform my approach is important, but I also think it is important for everyone, whether you write your thoughts about art down or not. The way we, as people, discuss art not only can make a difference in what kind of art gets produced, but it affects (and reflects) our relationships with other people, ourselves, and how we perceive the world.

Sexual Assault of Men Played for Laugh” from Pop Culture Detective

Pop Culture Detective has done many thoughtful analyses of the intersection of masculinity and pop culture, but this extensive look at the way media portrays male sexual assault, from “don’t drop the soap” jokes in children’s media to the racist and homophobic undertones in prison rape narratives may be Jonathan McIntosh’s best work. It’s a difficult watch, and I would skip it altogether if you have experience with sexual assault or harassment. But if not, I strongly recommend everyone, particularly men, watch it to have your eyes open to the prevalence and seriousness of this topic.

Television

Season 3 of A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix

I’ve talked extensively about my love of this series, and the final season did not disappoint. “The Penultimate Peril: Part 2” and “The End” are the best episodes.

Articles

Avengers: Endgame is a Secular Meditation on Death, Resurrection, and a Cathartic Afterlife, by Leah Schnelbach

The Tor blog gives a lot of thoughtful writers a platform, and this essay by Leah Schnelback is one of her and the website’s best as she tackles a complicated topic and gives the reader a clearer insight into why both Endgame and Infinity War caught people’s attention so much, how the films speak to our cultural anxieties and questions and gives more evidence to why superhero movies can’t be dismissed as irrelevant or mindless.

-Madeleine D.

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost, But This Movie Is: Tolkien

Image result for tolkien movie

Tolkien is a new biopic about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, best known as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. Biopics are hard to do because they usually go one of two ways. The first is where they become about the lead actor trying to imitate a famous figure and thus they simplify and whitewash history so that the story can be inspirational. The second way is where the biopic is a reinvention of a personality that tries to imply certain things about the person, which also whitewashes and simplifies history, and makes the person an icon of a specific cause or identity. It is very hard to tell the story of a person that doesn’t play only into what people want that person to mean to them.

So, what about Tolkien? Tolkien the man (played here by Nicholas Hoult) isn’t a particularly well-known individual. His work lives on but, outside of academic circles, his life doesn’t have much influence on the common perception of his work. What is the purpose of telling his story?

During the film, one of Tolkien’s professors tells him, “People take a certain comfort in the past.” This is, unfortunately, the unintentional thesis of this biopic (and to be fair, of most biopics). Between all of the scenes of twentieth-century British boyhood, from dead mothers to boarding schools to uptight fathers to drinking tea with the chaps, gallivanting around the pastures, and reading old books under the guidance of professors, the antiquated anglophilia of the movie fails to do much beside remind me of better movies, particularly Dead Poet’s Society and The Imitation Game. The stories of men like Tolkien have been told many times before. That doesn’t mean Tolkien’s life is irrelevant by any means- he was a real person- but it means the film has to work harder to tell his story in a creative fashion, which it does not do. Therefore I feel like I’m watching a remix of other films, rather than a story personal to one man.

To its credit, Tolkien isn’t concerned with making everything in Tolkien’s life have a direct 1-1 correspondence to something from his books (unlike, say, 2017’s The Man Who Invented Christmas). While there are some brief direct allusions to his work (“it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring”), overall the film is more interested in creating an atmosphere where Tolkien could find his stories.

The problem with building this atmosphere, however, is that the movie wants to focus on Tolkien’s fellowship with his friends, yet the movie spans half of his life. This means there are long portions without his friends, and since the movie is much less interested in showing how those parts of his life influenced his work, those scenes feel like filler and lack any interest or urgency that the friendship scenes have. This is worsened by the fact that each section of his life is shown as utterly independent from the other. Take, for example, his relationship with his wife Edith (Lily Collins). Except for one scene where she meets his friends, the groups are kept completely separate. The “fellowship” part of his life, which ends up being the heart and theme of the movie, is established with these mates and is never connected to Edith, who from her first appearance is framed not as a friend but solely as a love interest.

And that’s fine, but it means the film, which is more interested in how fellowship influenced Tolkien’s works than how romance did, could have omitted all of Edith’s part and very little harm would have been done. This is not only poor storytelling but is a truly missed opportunity to explore how Edith became the inspiration for all of Tolkien’s iconic female characters.

This is only part of Tolkien’s focus problem. The movie has a framing device where Tolkien is in WWI going to the front lines to find his friend. He passes out and has rapid-fire flashbacks through his childhood, mother’s death, boarding school years, and courtship with Edith. The pace slows down significantly to show his college years, before jumping back to the war scenes and the framing device. He finishes out his mission, and suddenly the movie is back in chronological order with no flashbacks as we finish out on him as a family man, which means we miss out on other things about Tolkien, like his Catholicism, friendship with C.S Lewis, and his other group of artistic friends, The Inklings. If the movie was truly going to be about friendship, then wouldn’t it make more sense to have the timeframe of the film start with Tolkien’s school friends, their war experiences, and then Tolkien recovering from the trauma of war and losing some of his friends by creating The Inklings? I guess that would make too much thematic sense.

The focus problems come with a pacing problem, which is a result of a screenplay that makes confounding choices on which scenes should be brief and which ones should be long. Most of Tolkien’s childhood flashback scenes are annoyingly brief, which means none of the relationships get to marinate and build. Meanwhile, there are several very long scenes, but these scenes are mostly of Tolkien talking about other people, which confuses us on who this movie is about. Hoult’s (and his eyebrows’) performance is competent, but he is so easily overshadowed by the other actors that it is disappointing to remember that he is the lead. I’ve seen good movies about quiet introverts (2017’s Paterson) and mediocre/boring ones (2016’s Loving). It’s possible to have charisma and still be a soft-spoken, introspective type, but Hoult and this movie just simply aren’t up to the task.

If you want to make a theatrical release, especially now in the age of streaming, there is a degree to which you have to justify your movie being in a theater. People only have so much time and money to spend at the movies, and so it has to be a movie worth seeing on a big screen. Tolkien never justifies itself in being a big-screen movie. Frankly, I don’t think it justifies itself being a movie. It simply doesn’t have enough insight into Tolkien and what makes his work still so beloved and relevant.

So what is the purpose of telling Tolkien’s story? I think it is to make me wish I had spent my time rewatching The Fellowship of the Rings instead.

-Madeleine D.

Avengers: Endgame Spoiler Review

Avengers-Endgame

The culmination of 22 movies. A cinematic universe built over the course of eleven years. One of the biggest franchises of all time. Some of the greatest actors ever. Avengers: Endgame is upon us.

I’m supposing you’ve seen the movie, so I’m not going to go over the story. I care as much about the technicalities and logic of the time-traveling plot elements as the film does, which is to say, not that much! I’m here for seeing what happens to my favorite characters. And boy did I get… some happenings.

There’s a lot of fanservice here. While I think most of it is deserving, there is also some fanservice that feels a little too self-congratulatory (no, Marvel, you are not the patron of feminism). It’s a delicate balance, one I think Endgame barely passes through.

Alas, even with all the fanservice, I didn’t get much of what I wanted, which makes this film a little more difficult to review. I think it ultimately boils down to the fact that I love Joss Whedon’s vision of the Avengers. I think his films contain the best characterizations for most of the characters, have the most interesting themes, and are the most dedicated to creating small, intimate, human moments.

However, for the past several years the Russo brothers have been in charge, and we’ve seen their vision come into view. There are some great things that they do; their action sequences are often excellent and they do an admirable job balancing the large casts they are given. But, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker put it, “The Russos have peculiarly little sense of visual pleasure, little sense of beauty, little sense of metaphor, little aptitude for texture or composition; their spectacular conceit is purely one of scale, which is why their finest moments are quiet and dramatic ones.” These weaknesses are particularly potent in Endgame. It struck me while watching just how ugly the film is visually. There are very few things happening under the surface for the characters. Everything they feel and think is shallow and plot-related, which strips the film of all the subtext and metaphorical layers the medium of film is so richly capable of. When it comes to the Russos’ vision, I can’t quite get on board.

Yet, as Cap says, we need to move on, and so I’m going to try to do so for the rest of this review. Because this is less of a movie and more of a ten-course meal where you keep getting things put on your plate that you aren’t sure you wanted but feel compelled to try, I’m going to list five of the things that worked, and five things that didn’t in Endgame.

The Good

  1. Tony

RDJ brought it home. A beautiful ending for a hero who has been growing and developing in complexity over the last ten years. Ever since Tony’s vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he saw the threat of Thanos, he’s been trying to convince the other Avengers to believe him and to see the greater danger. It was beautiful to hear Pepper recognize that and tell Tony he could finally rest. He finally saved them, as he had always been trying to do.

  1. Avengers 2012

The first Avengers movie was a marvel. Despite that movie feeling small in comparison to these newer films, it still holds up and has a sweet place in my heart, so I loved the time traveling bits back to the Battle of New York. Everything in that scene could be interpreted as gratuitous, but I think it was a delightful and well-deserved recognition of just how much of a pop-culture milestone it was. And props to all of the actors who showed up to have miniscule cameos in these films. Thank you for recognizing the importance of this franchise and their impact, whether you ended on a bad note (Natalie Portman) or clearly have no clue what is going on (Robert Redford).

  1. Return of the King

This movie is not on the level of Return of the King, but when all the Avengers came into the final showdown with Thanos, I felt like I did when I first watched the Battle at the Black Gate of Mordor. And when Cap said, “Avengers, assemble,” I felt the same shiver go through the theater as when Aragorn said, “It is not this day.” The final battle, for all of its chaos, replicates reading a comic book perfectly.

  1. Sam Wilson as New Cap

Anthony Mackie has been grossly underused since his turn as Sam Wilson/Falcon in Winter Soldier, but I’m so glad he’s finally getting the attention he deserves. Sam has the bravery, leadership, and heart of Cap, but without the self-righteous hotheadedness and with a more nuanced sense of duty. And while I doubt the MCU will do too much with it, having a black man take up the mantle of Captain America does mean something (quite a lot, actually).

  1. Old Cap

I think Cap also got a nice ending. Poetic, sweet, a good sendoff.

What I Wish I Could Snap Away

  1. Natasha’s Ending

In Age of Ultron, there’s a scene near the end where Natasha is standing with Steve on the edge of the destroyed Sokovia. She says that if they were to die there, it wouldn’t be so bad, as “there are worse places to go.” This ties into Natasha’s overall development in the MCU. She has red in her ledger, a past full of sins and debts. Characters try to convince her to forgive herself. She herself encourages self-forgiveness in others. But she can never give it to herself. After being the only one to try and keep the Avengers together for so long, she sees the opportunity to die for the Soul Stone and takes it. Her death wish, her final sacrifice, her payment, is finally complete. It’s an active choice she makes after a life of being a pawn.

So unlike some of the hot takes out there saying this death was unjust, I actually think it was the logical conclusion to her arc. I wish she had gotten a more redemptive arc, but it makes sense from a storytelling perspective. My problem with all of this, though, is that 1) she died in the place of Hawkeye, the objectively worst Avenger, and 2) the death is barely acknowledged in the movie. She gets no funeral and only one scene of visible grief from the other Avengers. Excluding the Edward Norton Hulk movie, Black Widow was the second Avenger introduced into the MCU, yet she never gets that credit. It’s always Iron Man or Captain America. For all the crap Scarlett Johannson has had to put up with to pave the way for other female characters, her character deserved more of a recognized legacy.

  1. Use of a Biological Family as Shorthand for “Making It”

In the MCU, having a biological family is a sign of a character succeeding, being relatable, and having a greater purpose. It’s presented as an ideal life. This motif has been used to great effect when it is corrupted and shown as an idol that holds certain characters back from accepting themselves and their potential. But more often than not, it is used as a narrative shorthand that devalues the relationships between characters we actually know and care about.

This becomes clearly apparent in the choice to give Tony a child. Now sure, Morgan Stark is adorable. But we already know Pepper and Tony love each other- we don’t need offspring to confirm it. Second, Tony’s fatherhood arc has been happening through Peter Parker, and I would argue that arc is more compelling because he chooses Peter despite his fear that he may corrupt Peter and be like his own father. He looks at Peter as a younger version of himself and wants him to do better. This is active character growth. Having a young biological child takes away this arc because a non-superhero toddler doesn’t reflect Tony Stark like a superpowered young adult does. Having a biological child for Tony also shortchanges Peter’s return and his grief over Tony. This compelling relationship is cut short.

True, having a child does create high stakes. But in the case of Tony, the stakes are already incredibly high, and we know Tony acts out of a desire to protect everyone, not just his own family. So, really, introducing Morgan was intended to give the sense that Tony had finally “made it,” achieved peace, and had all he needed. This is a blow to the found-family dynamic the Avengers have always had. The whole situation also feels extra awkward when you consider that the other Avenger who died but didn’t have a funeral and is constantly taken for granted is…. a childless Natasha.

Besides Scott Lang’s family, the other main biological family is Hawkeye’s family. We know next to nothing about them, but when they are snapped away that is supposed to be an emotional moment, because they’re a family, and he’s teaching his daughter to shoot a bow and arrow, and his wife is making lunch. It’s the American dream! Maybe I’m just heartless, but this barely registers. The audience has to fill in the emotions. Why not use the relationships Hawkeye already has with other established characters to make his turn to depressed vigilante more compelling? Oh, wait, except for Black Widow he doesn’t have any other established relationships with any of the other characters. Which leads me to…

  1. Hawkeye Continues to Be a Drag on All Possible Levels

Hawkeye as a character continues to make less and less sense in this franchise. He has no ties with any of the other Avengers. He never quite proves why his skillset is needed; in fact, the film works hard to avoid showing him in the final battle because his abilities are useless. In the first Avengers, maybe the everyman character was endearing and there were only six other heroes so an archer could make sense. But now, when we have seemingly hundreds of heroes on screen in a battle, and several everyman characters and all much more unique? #ShouldHaveBeenClint

  1. Thor

Thor has been through a lot in these past few films. While I didn’t think his PTSD and trauma would be given a lot of heft, I did think the MCU was past making it into an unbearable fat joke. Thor’s depression weight gain/alcoholism being treated the way it was is distasteful, unfunny, and lame. This article by Sylas K. Barrett is an excellent look at the way the movie frames these symptoms.

And yes, I know it was also poking fun at Chris Hemsworth’s sex appeal and Marvel using it. But while I don’t think reverse-objectification is progress, the Thor movies (for several reasons) have been the most female-friendly corner of the MCU until Black Panther. So making fun of that just didn’t sit right with me. Thor has been getting more comedic as of late, but you can be comedic and still have your dignity, which this movie takes from Thor. And speaking of stripping a character of dignity…

  1. Professor Hulk

One of the most devastating moments for the MCU was when Taika Waiti (who I have a lot of respect for in all other areas) looked at three-time Oscar-nominated dramatic actor Mark Ruffalo and said, “Hey mate, do you want to do some comedic improv?” And Mark, not wanting to get fired and probably distracted by his various bromances with the other actors, said: “Sure why not?” Thus the downturn of a great character and performance.

In theory, bringing in Professor Hulk could have been a nice way to bring Bruce’s character arc full circle. We start in The Avengers with Bruce thinking he controls Hulk (“I’m always angry”). It is quickly revealed that no, Hulk still has a mind of his own and is making choices without Bruce (like flying away at the end of Ultron). The two are in conflict throughout Thor: Ragnarok and Infinity War, and finally, here the two are in sync in a way that embraces Bruce’s true superpower, which is his brain and heart.

The problem is then like Natasha’s: poor execution. Hulk looks so much like Ruffalo that it creates an uncanny valley effect, the movie continues with making him the comic relief without any of the character’s core melancholy, and it gives him no conclusion. Another example of so many missed opportunities.

If you are invested in the MCU, then you probably can view these movies as a timeline of milestones. I remember my intro being when I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier on a whim with my dad, never having seen any other Marvel movie. I was instantly intrigued. I got caught up on all of the other movies, and by May of 2015, I remember lying in bed and praying to God that whatever he ordains is good but please just don’t let me die before I see Avengers 2. Suffice it to say he accepted my proposal and I got to see the film with some new friends, which was a triumphant way to end a lonely and difficult school year.

I have reviewed all of the Marvel movies on this blog since 2016 with Civil War. With an average of two MCU films a year, a few months apart, these reviews can give me insights into my own growth as a writer. These are also where I have battled out my own inner struggle of figuring out how to be a critic and a fan. I may never find peace between these two, as I will never find complete peace with this movie or the MCU’s legacy as a whole. And that’s okay. I can reevaluate the past, but as Cap says, I have to move forward. And all in all, despite some disappointments, I think Endgame is the best conclusion we could have realistically gotten (without Joss Whedon’s and my creative input).

-Madeleine D

Movie Minute: Alita, Isn’t It Romantic, and How To Train Your Dragon 3

College is hard, but not as hard as finding good movies to watch between January and April! Here are some that I’ve seen during the beginning-of-the-year movie desert.

Alita: Battle Angel

Related image      Wow, I didn’t know Christoph Waltz was making a second Big Eyes movie!

If anyone was excited for Alita: Battle Angel, it was me. Sure, I’ve never read the comic, and I’m not into anime or manga. But as far as general audiences go, I was ready to love it, because I’m a sucker for a bunch of things promised in this film. A teenage heroine in a dystopian future? Check. Oscar-winning actors in crazy costumes saying hilarious sci-fi jargon? I admit it. Trope of a scientist who goes too far in playing God? Sign me up.

But now I’ve seen it, and now I’m grumpy.

Alita: Battle Angel takes place in a dystopian future where Dr. “father figure at the ready” Ido (Christoph Waltz), a doctor/scientist/scavenger/”hunter-warrior”/Sad Man with a Sad Past™ finds the still-alive brain of a cyborg girl. He puts that brain into the conveniently pre-made cyber body he has, and when the girl, Alita (Rosa Salazar), comes to, she has no memory of her previous life and goes on a series of adventures to discover who she is.

To put it delicately: the script is bad. Real bad. There are too many characters whose arcs go nowhere, the plot is mangled and disjointed, and there is no sense of time in this film. In the first twenty minutes, we know a day has passed, and then after that, there is no sense of a timeline. How long as Alita been with Ido? How long did it take her to become a Hunter-Warrior? Has she really been with romantic interest Hugo for only two days by the time she’s literally ripping out her heart for him? It’s the halfway point of the movie, and I still have no clue the direction of the film or what it is going to be focused on. We’ve been introduced to father/daughter drama, boyfriend drama, big bad guy in the sky drama, hunter-warrior bully drama, gotta find my new sexier body drama, and motorball drama. Which direction are we going in? Oh wait, all six? All six storylines are going to be treated with equal focus so that the main storyline is super unclear and without any sense of urgency?

Well okay then.

If I was to try and find a theme or coherent storyline in this mess, I would say that the film is about all of the characters trying to force identities upon Alita. Ido wants Alita to be his replacement daughter. Hugo wants her to be his girlfriend who he may eventually scrap for parts. Gina Rodriguez wants her to be a soldier. Mahershala Ali wants her to be dead. Jennifer Conelly wants her to be dead. Edward Norton wants her to be dead (seriously, this cast is insane.) 21st Century Fox wants her to be a massive box office hit. But Alita decides to become none of those things.

Yet while all of that is in the movie, it’s not presented as I just presented it, because I don’t think writer/producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez actually see anything wrong with the way the other characters treat Alita. I see the empowerment coming from her asserting her own identity and redefining her relationships with people on her own terms. They see the “empowerment” angle as coming from her beating people up. 

But hey, maybe this whole movie was worth it for the sheer spectacle of watching a scene where, and I’m not kidding, Christoph Waltz is cradling the decapitated, talking head of Alita, and walks past his character’s ex-wife, played Jennifer Connelly, who smirks and says, “you can’t bring our daughter back.” End of scene. I can never unsee it.

Isn’t It Romantic

Image result for isn't it romantic

Aspiring to be the Deadpool of romcoms, Isn’t It Romantic suffers from being very ill-timed. A film about a cynical, modern woman trapped in a romantic comedy, it delivers a meta-commentary of the genre as it was twenty-five years ago. The film’s loving critique comes only from films that were made between the 1990s and early 2000s. That would have been fine a few years ago, but we’re currently in a new, more diverse and inclusive romcom renaissance with the likes of The Big Sick, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Crazy Rich Asians. So while the throwbacks are fun, they don’t feel relevant, putting the entire movie’s premise on a bit of an outdated and uninspired note.

But for what this movie is, it is unabashedly fun. The musical numbers are delightful, the message is easy but sweet, and Rebel Wilson is a capable leading lady with this perfect supporting cast. It’s a rental, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it put a smile on my face… and made me want to go watch my favorite romcom.*

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

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The How To Train Your Dragon movies weren’t a pivot part of my childhood like some fans of the series. I saw the first one in theaters and liked it, but didn’t like the second one as much. I’ve always had great respect for the franchise and how revolutionary it was in the animation world, but never truly got why it is so beloved. 

But when I went to go see this film on a whim, with zero expectations, I suddenly understood why people were such hardcore fans of these films. Because they’re awesome.

The animation, score, action sequences, and the characters? Breathtaking, detailed, and compelling. This movie is able to have an epic scale but an intimate narrative. I was particularly surprised that the message of HTTYD3 basically boils down to: part of becoming a man means committing to your loved ones and settling down. I know the audience for this franchise has grown up alongside it, but there is a lot of nuanced (and funny) conversations about responsibility, marriage, and family here that are not only rare for a movie aimed at families but especially for a movie starring a male lead. Hiccup has always been a wonderful role model, but I was reminded just how revolutionary and inspiring his brand of compassionate and empathetic heroism is. He’s a true leader in a way that I think is still rare to find in blockbusters.

Even if you haven’t seen these movies in a while, or only saw the first one, I think you can still go into this movie cold and enjoy it, and I highly recommend you do.

 

*13 Going on 30. And if you disagree with me, a friendly reminder that this film stars Elektra, the Hulk, Captain Marvel, Ulysses Klaw, Ant-Man’s ex-wife Maggie, and Silver Fox from X-Men. It’s an MCU movie, confirmed.

It’s Just Okay! Captain Marvel

Capt Marvel

To the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A” by Lee Greenwood, starting at the second verse:

Brie Larson won an Oscar, and one of the directors is a girl

So all of the problematic lady stuff, from Marvel will become unfurled

From Natasha to Wanda, and Okoye and Shuri

There’s pride in every fangirl’s heart, and it’s time we stand and say

That I’m proud to be a woman, for at least I know I’m free

To punch a man in the face, Carol gave that right to me

And I’d gladly stand up next to her, to defend our right to say

Don’t tell me to smile, she paved the way

It’s International Women’s Day!

If you were singing something along those lines going into Captain Marvel this weekend, then you were exactly where Kevin Feige and Marvel studios wanted you to be. Promoted as the response to Wonder Woman and a form of self-flagellation for the fact that Marvel has made 21 movies, 11 of which star white guys named Chris, it’s still sad that the studio is only now is getting around to making one with a woman. However, it hasn’t been easy. Captain Marvel has been plagued by online trolls, misinterpreted statements by its outspoken lead actress, and a boycott, not to mention ridiculous expectations put on it by critics and fans alike.

So after all of this build up, how is Captain Marvel? Is it our new modern third-wave feminist The Feminine Mystique? Does it give me any clues to which superheroes will and won’t stay dead during Avengers: Endgame so I may finally find peace? Will seeing Carol Danvers fly finally inspire me to live my life to the fullest and/or hit the gym?

Well, I am here to report that Captain Marvel is: fine. Hooray!

Ok, let’s break this down. To begin with, the epidemic that I’ve been growing weary of for a while now is that all Marvel heroes have the same personality. They’re all cool, calm, collected, and witty. If you watch the first Avengers film, sure, all the characters could be funny, but they were funny in different ways. And their personalities and values were different. Now, if I read the script of Avengers: Infinity War with the character names missing, there would be too many times I would guess a line was said by a different character because everyone’s dialogue sounds the same.

Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) here is witty, cool, collected, and calm. She is hyper-competent, which is now a requirement for all heroines, and her personality is so limited to what the plot requires of it that it’s hard to imagine what she would do on a free Saturday night. There are quiet moments in the film that give Larson something to play with, but they are too small and infrequent to make me feel that I’m not watching Captain America with a side of Tony Stark snark.

Counterbalancing this, though, is an excellent and vibrant supporting cast. Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson have excellent chemistry (this is their third film together), and I particularly liked Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, Carol’s best friend. Their friendship was sweet on screen, and at one point in the movie, as Carol is having a moment of personal doubt, Maria reminds her who she is, affirms her, and then they hug. And I realized that this is the first time I’d seen this kind of female friendship in an action superhero movie before. Hugging my girlfriends and affirming them is something I, and many women do, every day, but I finally got to see it on screen. And it was just as awesome as seeing Carol burst into flames and save the world, which was also pretty cool.

On a more technical side, while I don’t usually point out editing, I have to talk about it here. Marvel movies, at least ones not directed by the Russos, generally have quick and choppy editing in the fight scenes. But here, it feels extra insulting, not just because the action scenes are poorly cut to the point where it feels like the directors just didn’t want to think of more action for the character to do, but because Brie Larson trained nine months for this role, is ripped, and did most of her own stunts, and you can barely tell here. #GiveUsGratituousShotsOfBrie’sRippedArms.

The plot is convoluted, which causes the movie to have whiplash pacing and become distracted from being a character study. For example, one of the darkest aspects of the film is the fact that Carol was, basically, abducted, gaslit, and brainwashed to be formed in her captor’s image. While addressed in the film, what could have been an intensely emotional moment and a defining trauma for Carol, her Uncle Ben if you will, is handled with such stoicism and almost casualness that the revelation barely qualifies as a turning point for Carol, and is a completely missed opportunity because instead we gotta spend time setting up alien characters for future movies.

Ultimately, the most disorienting thing about Captain Marvel is that it tries to go two different directions, and ultimately does neither. The first is that it wants to be a very obvious “girl-power” movie, but it contains very little of the female experience. It tries to have some, like Carol being asked by a random man to smile, (a ridiculously perfect foreshadowing of  what was to come) and her being told she’s too emotional. But these things feel much more like Womanhood 101, and not very deep. The second is that it is a very standard Marvel movie that doesn’t drift from formula. If it had committed to being a Marvel movie that could, in theory, have been played by a man and been exactly the same, then that could have been an interesting statement on why we put emphasis on female superheroes at all. It would have answered the immortal question of, “Hey, why shouldn’t women have a mediocre superhero movie to call their own?”

In the end, we have a movie that is neither an interesting examination on how being a woman would make one a different kind of a superhero from a male one, nor do we get a superhero movie that could be led by any of, say, the Marvel Chrises. We get something that’s pretty mediocre. So to be honest, I’m disappointed. There were plenty of scenes and things I liked, but it adds up to a movie I probably won’t remember the majority of in a few weeks. But despite that, I still think it’s worth seeing if you keep up with the Marvel movies, or even if you have already decided you want to see it. It stands alone well enough that you can enjoy it without needing to have any previous Marvel backstory. I want it to do well at the box office, mostly just to spite trolls.

Near the end of the film, Carol says to an antagonist, “I have nothing to prove to you,” which may ultimately be the best way to think of the movie. It doesn’t need to be a roaring success to justify its existence. Carol Danvers has nothing to prove, and neither do female-led superhero movies. So let’s raise the bar for everyone, without using it to keep others down.

-Madeleine D

Best of 2018

Image result for 2018 movies

This year, I found myself being drawn to films that presented an empathetic worldview. What I mean by this is that in many movies how the filmmakers treat the characters through the plot, dialogue, cinematography, or framing, can be quite cruel. Many filmmakers seem to hate their own characters or prioritize utilitarian filmmaking techniques over presenting human dignity. These can result in aesthetically beautiful movies that may be philosophical but have cold centers. I looked for movies this year that were both intellectually fulfilling and empathetically warm and hopeful. Not a Pollyanna type of optimism, but grounded, true hope. So here are some of the best films of 2018 that I felt did this. 

10. Black Panther

One of Marvel’s most sophisticated offerings to date and a wakeup call for Hollywood, Black Panther ushers in a more socially-aware blockbuster era while still being loads of fun.  

9. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This documentary about Fred Rogers dives deep into his philosophy of teaching and using media wisely. It refuses to look too closely at Mister Roger’s flaws, but ultimately, it isn’t about one man. It’s about you, and what you will do to honor his legacy and vision.

  1. Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace uses the story of a girl and her father living on the outskirts of society to ask questions about the necessity of organized society for human fulfillment and development. But Leave No Trace is so unassuming you may not even realize it’s prompted you to think about its ideas for months after you see the film. 

  1. The Hate U Give

The young-adult version of Blindspotting, The Hate U Give balances heavy material with the personal life of protagonist Starr, giving the movie a powerful ability to feel both timely and archetypal. Amandla Stenberg carries the entire movie with ease and confidence that makes her an actress to watch.

  1. First Reformed

While billed as a drama, this story about a pastor’s crisis of faith is really a kind of horror story. A deeply uncomfortable but moving film, I am thankful director Paul Schrader is willing to tackle an area the rest of Hollywood refuses to touch, and does so in an unabashed and courageous manner.

  1. Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher is a revelation in this humane and insightful look at tweenhood. A must-see for parents, middle-schoolers, or anyone who just wants to understand the new world young people are navigating today.

  1. Shoplifters

Shoplifters is a Japanese film about a poor “family” that must navigate the line where personal morality is more just than the law. It’s an engaging and constantly surprising drama that I would recommend watching as a double feature with Leave No Trace.

  1. Blindspotting

Blindspotting portrays a black and white friendship that, like Green Book, is easy to root for. But where Green Book fails Blindspotting succeed by not shying away from the complexities of how race affects interpersonal relationships. By holding both its white and black characters accountable, it gives a nuanced view of how racism works in the modern world. Its ending scene is also one of the best of the year, holding the audience hostage for a breathtaking scene of catharsis that films like BlackKklansman failed to deliver.

  1. Sorry to Bother You

Surreal, inventive, and wholly unique. Like I said in my review of the film, Sorry to Bother You captures the feeling of 2018.

  1. Annihilation

Eleven months later and I still vividly remember how I felt watching Annihilation for the first time, and it gets better with every rewatch.  It is one of the best science fiction movies of the last few years, and a poignant exploration of pain and self-destruction.

 

Honorable Mentions: A Quiet Place RBG, Venom, Roma, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Vice, Mary Poppins Returns, Tomb Raider, The Kindergarten Teacher, Christopher Robin, and not a movie but some of the year’s most affecting storytelling, Serial Podcast season 3.

Dishonorable Mentions: How it Ends, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, Ready Player One, Mary Queen of Scots.

-Madeleine D.

P.S,

This is the 100th post of madeleinelovesmovies! Thank you for your readership and support. I hope you had a wonderful 2018, and I look forward to seeing what 2019 has in store!